Polytheistic Fragments, Sir Richard Bishop's first release for Drag City, is a kaleidoscopic manifesto of instrumental solo guitar. Bishop was initially renowned as the rapid-fire guitarist for the Sun City Girls, a world-trekking and genre-busting trio who broke up when percussionist Charles Gocher passed away in early 2007. The Girls' music has greatly influenced many of the so-called "freak folk" acts of recent years. And in its own way, so has Bishop's solo debut from 1998, the twisting and lovely Salvador Kali. It's a godsend that Bishop's amped up his solo work since 2005, with a half-dozen releases on small labels, including his own. When you can play as well as Bishop, it becomes about what you choose to play, and here, Bishop reigns in his ethno-everything abilities to focus on melody and a pure love for playing the guitar. Half the songs are improvised and half composed, and there are equal parts mysticism and humor throughout. This is easily one of the most rewarding albums of the year. --Mike McGonigal
Review by Thom Jurek
Sir Richard Bishop, formerly guitarist of the (in)famous Sun City Girls ensemble, has been making solo recordings intermittently since 1998, and quite regularly since 2004. In fact, Polytheistic Fragments -- his debut for Drag City -- is his fourth in as many years, and his third since 2006! The Sun City Girls broke up after the death of percussionist Charles Gocher in February of 2007. This is Bishop's first musical statement since that time. Bishop has a given style as a guitarist. Icons like the late John Fahey and Robbie Basho are usually invoked, but Bishop plays nothing like either one of them. His range of musical knowledge is vast: from ancient and modern Asian scalar modalities (from Vietnam to China to Japan to Malaysia) to Indian raga, from South American indigenous rural folk music to British Isles and Celtic instrumental forms, from American Appalachian folk, blues, and jazz to Brazilian samba and even flamenco, tango, and fado. Polytheistic Fragments delves into a number of these, from classical Spanish flamenco to open modal explorative improvisations. He employs mostly a single acoustic guitar, but there are some overdubs and slide tunes where the electric is utilized as well. It hardly matters once one encounters a track like "Rub' Al Khali," where flamenco and Spanish classical styles encounter Pan-Asian modalities. On the very next cut, "Free Masonic Guitar," what appear to the ear to be overdubbed acoustic and 12-strings are tuned in an odd open-toned scale and woven into a tightly knit fabric of single-string wizardry and percussive chord flourishes that touch upon blues, old Andean folk tunes, and a shimmering bluegrass breakdown framed in a flamenco -- not nuevo, either -- rhythmic attack (as if you could dance to Bishop's wildly mysterious music). But there are more surprises here than that, including the shimmering surf-country of "Canned Goods & Firearms," with its electric guitar in plectrum style that doesn't ape Dick Dale so much as go beyond his own wildest dreams. "Saraswati" offers minimal, lightly reverbed piano playing and an odd minor-key melody that is as quizzical as it is beautiful, backed by a droning Indian sarod in the backdrop. "Tennessee Porch Swing" is a Southern hornpipe-styled folk tune, and the set closes with the gloriously languid, elegiac "Ecstasies in the Open Air," an acoustic guitar piece with what sounds like a lone organ line in the background (there are no credits) before an electric guitar offers a contrapuntal lyric line and guitars (including a Resophonic six-string) begin to bleed and blur together in a wall of tastefully layered overdubs to carry this combination lullaby and dirge, sweet as it is, home into silence. Polytheistic Fragments may not appeal to those who enjoy Bishop's longer compositions, but this was meant to be a collection of instrumental songs, and to that end it is successful -- focused, investigative, searching, and full of barely concealed reverie and emotion. It is not less forward-thinking than his other recordings, simply less experimental in nature.
Sir Richard Bishop
[Drag City; 2007]
He played around the world with the Sun City Girls for 26 years, and has released six solo albums in the last decade, but Polytheistic Fragments still feels like guitarist Sir Richard Bishop's international debut. It's his first record on Drag City, but more importantly, it's his widest-ranging one yet, a joyful trip through his many styles, influences, and obsessions. Most of Bishop's previous albums have had a stricter range, be it the improvised acoustics of Improvika, the electronic atmospheres of Elektronika Demonika, or the long-form experiments of While My Guitar Gently Bleeds, released earlier this year.
But Fragments is a spectacular showcase of Bishop's multi-dimensional talents. Here we get fast-picked folk, Django Reinhardt-worthy gypsy tunes, Chet Atkins-style ditties, Hindi-influenced melodies, and a lode of other, less classifiable stuff. Interestingly, this catholic approach is closest in tone to Bishop's actual solo debut, 1998's Salvador Kali, which also freely rolled his polygonal sonic dice. But even compared to that stellar release, Fragments is remarkably kaleidoscopic.
It's also Bishop's most ear-catching work so far. His playing is still open and exploratory, but nearly every track is also hummable. Opener "Cross My Palm With Silver" begins with typical Reinhardt-ish sketches, but halfway in coalesces into a sneaky rolling hook. "Elysium Number Five" matches that with a snake-like lead line, and "Free Masonic Guitar", made almost solely of ringing strums, builds melody from sheer momentum. Bishop has always been a stunning player, picking through blinding runs in a flash. But here his ability to think fast and play even faster is employed solely in service of songcraft. The album's centerpiece, the ten-minute piano meditation "Saraswati", might seem like an exception to Fragments' melodicism, with its searching tones and chilly drone. But as writer Grayson Currin recently pointed out, listen closely and the track seems to nick the melody from the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows", stretching it into revelatory slow motion.
One would imagine that "Saraswati" would be too daunting an achievement to follow, but in fact, Polytheistic Fragments' three final tracks are the album's best. "Tennessee Porch Swing" is an unabashed country-road stroll, while "Canned Goods & Firearms" channels the bounce of Chet Atkins. And "Ecstasies in the Open Air" is the record's ultimate charmer, a denouement whose halting acoustics melt perfectly into a soaring flute line. It's probably the softest, dreamiest thing you'll ever hear Bishop play, but like the rest of Polytheistic Fragments, its gentle bliss fits perfectly inside this sound-painter's rainbow palette.
-Marc Masters, October 01, 2007